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Developing a Local Knowledge-Based Economy

  Nov 21, 2013

Strathmore Business School -KEMRI PARTNERSHIP

Kenya is endowed with a robust knowledge base in the life sciences/biotechnology sector as indicated by the presence of globally renown organizations such as the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, University of Nairobi/Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (UoN/KAVI), African Insect Science for Food and Health (ICIPE), including the distinction of hosting two CGIAR body headquarters – the world agroforestry centre (ICRAF) and international livestock research institute (ILRI), among others. However, this enviable knowledge base remains largely untapped and poorly articulated into the national economy – and this to our great detriment! The commendable progress towards achieving the millennium development goal’s objective “6c” of halving the number of malaria infections is a good case in point. Whereas KEMRI played a pivotal role in demonstrating the efficacy of insecticide treated nets (ITNs) leading to their adoption as the public health tool of choice for the control of malaria in the region, Kenya has remained an importer of this simple and effective lifesaving technology.

What is intriguing is that Kenya produces 70% of the world’s pyrethrum that as a cash crop and source of livelihood for farmers has for many decades seen diminishing returns as we export pyrethrin (the active ingredient in pyrethrum-based insecticides) and import value added insecticides. A paper highlighting the strong correlation of economic development and the history of malaria eradication in developed countries was recently published in the Lancet – one of the highest ranking scientific journals – serving to highlight the magnitude of public health impact that can be derived from national development.This illustrates that although KEMRI has indeed made valuable contributions towards meeting the MDG goal of halving the national malaria burden, a lack of national innovation systems that should have linked KEMRI’s research findings with the nation’s struggling pyrethrum production and textile industries means we lost a further opportunity to leverage the synergistic effects of increased job and wealth creation as key inputs to public health.This is highly detrimental, because whereas we fail to take deliberate steps linking our research and academia to the national economy, our research findings continue to lend themselves to creating jobs and wealth outside Kenya, in countries with established systems and platforms for a knowledge economy. Consequently Kenya stands to incur negative balances of trade, in addition to the eroding of public health gains as a result of the further entrenchment of poverty-related diseases such as malaria in the long term.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and Strathmore Business School (SBS) have come together to provide a solution to this predicament by developing the Bioentrepreneurship Executive Program. This program targets entrepreneurs, investors, innovative scientists and science, technology & innovation (STI) decision makers to provide training on entrepreneurship and innovation management for successful R&D commercialization in the biotechnology industry. Information asymmetry presents the largest obstacle to creating a local knowledge driven-economy. This is because the national R&D/academia platform creates ingenious and innovative solutions to locally prevailing problems, but many of these solutions remain shrouded in highly technical language and isolated in ivory towers.On the other hand, business and financial fundamentals that are assumed to be “common sense” in the two sectors are often not “common” and often seem to fly in the face of R&D/academia’s scientific methodology and perspective.As a result of this disconnect, R&D/academia perpetually research and develop solutions to regional problems, whilst the financial and business sectors continue to import and market foreign solutions to these same problems. The Bioentrepreneurship Executive Program therefore serves to bridge the chasm between the “utopian” world of pure science and the “seedy” world of profit-driven enterprise by enlightening scientists and key decision makers at the helm of STI organizations on how the world of business works and enlightening entrepreneurs and financiers on the norms and demands of the creative process and also how to evaluate the invention’s technical and fiscal viability. Key to this is the delicate process of translating the invention from a technological “push” from the STI sector, into developing a market “pull” or demand for the innovation by the customer that is the hallmark of successful innovation. A technically sound invention that fails in the commercial translation into customer-demand becomes at best a still-birth but nevertheless dead. Therefore private sector engagement and leadership is instrumental for the success of any innovation.

Overcoming the deep-seated reservations and often philosophical distrust held by R&D/academia of the “for profit” organizations starts by gaining an appreciation of the business realities that shape the market place. This in turn serves to facilitate the requisite ceding of sufficient control to private sector leadership in order to achieve win-win partnerships. A win-win for both parties is based on recognizing that whereas the forces of free market enterprise are especially unforgiving to new ventures; for a winning formula (comprising of the right mix and balance of technical and business acumen), the free market provides a self-sustaining mechanism for the development, production and supply of the lifesaving drug, vaccine or device to those that need it. However, the benefits of the free market enterprise do not end there. As demonstrated by the mosquito nets scenario, developing a local knowledge economy would also result in the creation of value chains with a multiplier effect in regards to the number of livelihoods generated, positive contribution to the national balances of trade with a positive impact on the overall costs of living, elimination of poverty-related diseases, in turn reducing government health expenditure while increasing the revenue collection base for government with the increase in wealth among the populace, among other positive feedback cycle results. In short, the well-managed liaison between R&D/academia and private sector results in a synergistic effect that neither can achieve alone, with multiple winners all-round. For the government, all this can be summed up in the achievement of one key objective – development!

Consequently, both national and county governments can and must play an integral role in the unleashing of innovation’s dynamic forces in the economy through appropriate support of R&D on the one hand, and by promoting an enabling macro and microeconomic environment for private sector investment on the other. The purposeful engagement of all three parties consisting of R&D/academia, private sector and government with the express objective of achieving development serves as the engine for innovation and is known as the triple helix. The effective management of this special “triple helix” relationship lies at the heart of the knowledge economy. This calls for transformational leadership at the apex of each helix that is both receptive and reciprocal of the other sectors. The Strathmore Business School pedagogy in which the Bioentrepreneurship Executive Program is anchored, therefore serves to develop and equip leaders within the triple helix, with both the skills and ability to transform the region through innovation in the life sciences/biotechnology industry. With the crosscutting knowledge, skills and innovation networks gained, we look forward to writing a new chapter in Kenya’s history as we leverage the life sciences R&D platform to contribute towards national development and Kenya Vision 2030 through deliberate and active participation in the knowledge economy.

By Robert M. Karanja, PhD

Scientist, KEMRI & Academic Director – Bioentrepreneurship Executive Program

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